Most people want to look and feel their best and will go to great lengths to do so. We buy fashionable clothes, get stylish hair treatments, and put on the best kind of make-up. Some of us go a little further and invest in top of the line skin creams, Botox, filler, and laser treatments, in addition to spending hours at the gym to optimize our physique. But few of us truly take an internal inventory of ourselves to determine what our purpose is, our innermost stressors, and how can we create sustainable change.
When working with patients, I consider three layers. The inner layer (our intrinsic self, governed by our thoughts, hormones, physiological and genetic make up, etc.), the intermediate layer (skin, physique, enhanced through behaviours, lifestyle practices, etc.) and the outer layer, i.e., things you put on the very surface (clothes, makeup, accessories etc.).
The first two layers – inner and intermediate – are the foundation upon which we build lasting health and self-confidence. The outer layer should be our last priority and is easier to optimize when the first two have been looked after. To begin, the founding layer, of course, is our mental wellbeing. Are you able to reframe your mind to view stress as a means to make you perform better and instill purpose in your life? Are you able to make good lifestyle choices to optimize your hormones? From our inner self, we move to the next (intermediate) layer. Are you giving yourself the best kind of skin care as well as working hard at maintaining a healthy body composition? We should always strive to make the first and intermediate layers priority. The beautiful designer handbag and the most luxurious make up won’t matter if the wearer is stressed, anxious, and tired, and sending this kind of energy out into the world. This apparel will not have a lasting effect on how we feel about ourselves.
So what are some practical steps to improve the first layer? First we have to reframe the way we view stress. This is referred to as cognitive reappraisal—reframing an event in order to change one’s emotional response to it. Stress has been portrayed as an enemy to our health, and this is true in many cases. Having higher levels of stress shortens telomere length – the protective cap on our DNA. When this cap is eroded cells die, which accelerates the aging process and associated health risks. Longer telomeres are associated with better health and less disease so it is important we learn to handle stress so that our telomeres aren’t negatively affected. Research shows that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes obesity, and causes brain alterations such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. For example, cortisol (a stress hormone) increases appetite, which causes us to eat more and much of that extra energy is stored as fat.
In one study, people reporting having a high level of stress and the perception that stress is harmful had a 43% increased risk of premature death. However, people that did not view stress as being harmful had no increased risk of premature death. In the former group, people augmented their stress two-fold by worrying about their amount of stress. The outcome to this study is ground breaking as we now have evidence that we have much more control than we previously thought when it comes to the harmful effects of stressful events in our lives. I have always held the belief that we can’t always change our situation but we can always change the way we think about it.
In another study, patients with hypertension were instructed to incorporate relaxation techniques, which resulted in significant improvements in blood pressure and several patients were able to successfully remove one of their blood pressure medications under medical supervision. The patients’ stresses didn’t change… just the way they dealt with the stress.
When we view stress in a positive way using cognitive reappraisal, it actually helps us focus better, be more alert, perform better in daily activities, and experience less depression and anxiety. The stress response has evolved as a survival tool and we can and should utilize that benefit today. When viewed this way… stress isn’t bad, rather it is stressing over the stressful situations that’s harmful to
our long-term health.
Now we can’t simply use this technique and expect all of our stress to magically disappear. One of the best stress reducing techniques is simply to do the hard work and not procrastinate. Get to the gym, change eating habits, stick with a budget, and build meaningful relationships.
Take one positive step each day towards reducing your stress (or viewing it more positively) and experience the harmonious, yet powerful ripple effect it will have in your life. TM